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An interview with Russ Cohn, President of NatureMill - May 2004
How long of a process has it been getting the product ready to sell?

It has been nearly a year in the works. Most of this time was spent tinkering around to build just a few units for ourselves and family and friends. Then it struck us – why not share this with the whole world! We weren’t sure if anyone would pay for this – perhaps it was just a crazy dream. So in January we put together a simple website with pictures and a description, and expected a few people to find us. Kaboom! Thousands of people flocked to the site. It was like that UPS commercial from the dot com days – first one sale, then dozens, then a flood. So now we are working around the clock to deliver a consumer product.

There have been interesting challenges. We want the product to look great in the kitchen. But after all, it handles trash. So we’ve had to think creatively about how to hide the dirt and make it easy to clean. We’ve come up with lots of stainless steel components, textured surfaces, and a very wide mouth to limit spills. You can even hide NatureMill inside a standard kitchen cabinet.

Another challenge has been getting to know our target audience. The website has been very helpful in this respect. We initially assumed demand would be mainly from young, cyber-hip California tree-hugger types. Turns out, demand is more from the east coast and midwestern gardeners. The reason is that it is so cold there in the winter that composting is very inconvenient, and the shorter growing season makes good compost a must. We’ve also seen strong demand from Europe where composting is much more mainstream.
On your website I read you’re from San Francisco. Is that where the company is based?

Yes, I am from San Francisco and this is where the company is based. To summarize, San Francisco recently began a curbside compost collection program. We were very excited about it, but wanted more. We wanted to keep our own compost for our gardens! And we didn’t want to handle the raw material and all its dripping, stinking mess. Our backyard compost piles are inconvenient, especially in the rainy months. The curbside collection bins start to smell and need to be washed out. So we went to work on “composting in place.”

Anyone who uses a compost crock regularly has (occasionally) procrastinated taking it out. I did this and noticed that the bottom of the container becomes warm. The warmth comes from composting microorganisms hard at work. Give them just a little oxygen, mixing, drainage, and insulation, and they are very happy.

Is there a need to add activators to get the process started or keep it going?

Compost microorganisms are already present in most foods and even in the air. We include a few starter packs (for free) just in case. You will never need to buy activators. Once the process is started, a population of microorganisms remain and thrive in the machine even as you add new waste materials. They are very hearty. It is important to not clean the inside (reactor) chamber. You can clean the hopper (the top section) and other visible surfaces with a damp paper towel. You should also avoid highly acidic food wastes such as citrus fruits.

Tell me more about the air filtration system that eliminates any odors. How often do these filters need to be changed and what is the cost of replacement filters?

You will have to change the filter roughly once per year, depending on actual usage. You can replace the carbon yourself for about $1 if you are willing to make a trip to the pet store and spend a few minutes and make a little mess. We will also sell replacement filters. We have not priced the filters yet but we expect them to be very cheap.

Your website mentions a microchip that precisely controls temperature, air flow, moisture, and mixing to accelerate the process from a year down to just a few weeks. One of the questions we received was if the unit could be kept on a patio where the temperature can get cold in the winter?

The machine should be fine in a patio, even if it’s cold. Compost microorganisms generate their own heat. Try to keep the lid closed as much as possible, and keep the unit out of the wind and weather.

Your website states that "the natural decomposition process (composting) produces water as a byproduct. Most of the water evaporates. Some of it condenses and collects in a catch basin. Empty the basin periodically and use it on your plants or pour it down the kitchen sink." How often do you need to empty the basin? Will the unit shut off if it is not emptied?

That depends on a number of factors such as how wet is your waste. Drippy, over-ripe tomatoes or melon will produce much water, whereas paper and coffee grounds will not. The humidity also plays a role. Under most conditions, there is hardly any water to remove. Even in the worst case, the water byproduct will never overflow.

How long until you have a full tray of compost? - This is a hard question because it depends on what they put in it. But can you tell us in general terms?

Yes, this depends on what you put in. You will have a fresh batch of compost on a regular schedule every 2 or 3 weeks. A light will come on to alert you. You can continue to add fresh waste any time, any day. The amount of finished compost is proportional to how much you put in. Roughly 70% of the food waste disappears (it is consumed by the compost microorganisms or evaporates) so you are left with 30% of whatever you put in.

When do you expect to start shipping the product?

The unit will be ready for shipping in mid 2004. This is clearly stated on the “how to buy” page of the website. We would love to ship sooner, and we’d love to give a more precise date, but let me explain why we can’t: This is a first-of-its-kind product. We want to test every aspect of it before we put our name on it. We are very proud of our product and quality comes first. Many new-tech companies release products prematurely with quality problems because management set an arbitrary and unrealistic schedule. Not us. Thanks for being patient! I can assure you it’s worth the wait.

Well, thank you for the interview. One last question: What does the future hold for your company and this product? What are your hopes, dreams and overall plans for the future?

Our dream is to see the entire world composting. It’s our way of empowering regular folks to help save the planet. The gardening community has been very eager, and over time we want to make the product sensible enough for non-gardeners to enjoy. That translates into a strategy of more products, more user-friendly and automated, and international distribution. We’d like to involve local governments too – they have the most to gain financially due to skyrocketing costs of their landfill operations. We would like to work on a low cost version of the product for the developing-world – their growing populations have some of the most challenging landfill problems.

Thanks to everyone who contributed a question. If you would like to see future articles on the Kitchen Composter and have a question or comment please send it to us! (Don't forget to mention this article or Kitchen Composter in your message) - For more information make sure you check out their web site at www.naturemill.com - Happy Composting! -